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“It looks er... jolly simple, doesn’t it?”
“It’s, er, jolly deadly, old boy”

Lawrence Lettice celebrates the 60th Anniversary of the film Zulu


It was Friday April 24th, 1964, when my Dad and I grabbed the number 8 bus from Pennywell and headed for Rodney Street. Our destination was the old ABC Ritz cinema, and the film we were about to see, was Zulu. The film had previously premiered in London on January 22nd (the anniversary of the actual battle depicted in the film) but this was its very first showing in Edinburgh.

It was the first time I had ever queued to get into a cinema, and that night, the picture house was packed.

Like many a young boy growing up in the monochrome early 1960s, I was enthralled by the colour, action and spectacle of the film. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before.

Over the years I have revisited Zulu many times, and it never fails to excite and overwhelm you with its thundering battle scenes, memorable characters, John Barry’s powerful music score and stunning Technicolor cinematography. All filmed in the natural splendour of the stunning Drakensberg mountains in South Africa.

Surprisingly Stanley Baker, a box office star of the day, was the main driving force behind getting the film made. Being a proud and patriotic Welshman, his country’s participation in the story of the battle of Rorke’s Drift made it an immensely attractive proposition for him – both as an actor and a first-time producer.

Of course, it’s also notable for introducing the young Michael Caine in his first starring role, and he made an immediate impression, surprisingly. as the posh upper crust officer.

Unfortunately, amongst the woke-fueled naysayers of today, accusations of racism are often levelled at the film. This allegation crops up with tiresome regularity, making you wonder if the majority of the critical accusers have ever sat and watched the film all the way through.

Zulu doesn’t linger on the geopolitics of why the British were there in the first place (it’s briefly mentioned, but not dwelt upon) it’s simply a story of grim survival. In which both sides battle valiantly against one another under the blazing African sun.

I’m no military historian, but I would hazard a guess that the bulk of the British soldiers who fought for Queen Victoria during the 19th century in Africa, India, China and many other countries were barely educated with no real grasp of world politics. Which is to say they would also be totally ignorant as to why they were sent to such far flung places to fight against the indigenous populations.

The film shows this aspect of a common soldier’s bewilderment and confusion better than most. “There’s not to reason why…there’s but to do or die”. Lord Tennyson’s poetic words appear quite appropriate on this occasion.

Another aspect that differentiates the film from many others, is the genuine respect and dignity given to the Zulu nation during the telling of the story.

The Zulus were (and no doubt still are) a proud and brave warrior nation, so on this occasion, they were not depicted as mindless savages, rather a courageous and effective fighting unit.

Apart from the furious conflagrations, there is one brief scene that I recall with some clarity.

Prior to the commencement of the main battle. The sight of Stanley Baker’s hand shaking with fear as he attempts to load a bullet into the chamber of his pistol, haunts me still…

It may be coincidence but a similar image afflicted Tom Hanks in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan just before the landing on Omaha beach.

One amusing recollection I have in connection with the film, occurred throughout much of 1964, when the mass attack on Rorke’s Drift was enthusiastically re-enacted on the playing fields of my old primary school – usually during lunchtimes.

A couple of dozen of the older boys would stand firm, like a pre-teen thin red line, while dozens of the younger boys (of which I was one) would whoop and holler, making loud Zulu chants while charging towards them. As expected, all hell broke loose but, from memory, there were no serious injuries incurred. I suppose it did make for a slight change from kicking a football around.

One of the film’s actors (Glynn Edwards, who played Corporal Allen) once kept a flat down at The Shore. A possibly apocryphal story doing the rounds at the time, involved the late actor strolling in Leith one day where a cheeky local shouted over to him – “Hello there! Is Zulu on again tonight!”

Joking aside, it’s a film that continues to grow in stature, in no way does it glorify war. Rather, with authentic realism, it shows the raw courage of both sides.

By the end of the film there is great relief, a sense of physical and emotional exhaustion, and a palpable feeling of mutual respect between both soldier and native.

What Stanley Baker and director Cy Endfield achieved was a quite remarkable film. Which has stood the test of time, as not only a gripping action epic, but a deep and thoughtful anti-war film in which the human costs of warfare is laid bare for all to see.

It remains one of the greatest British films ever made. ■

Surprisingly Stanley Baker, a box office star of the day, was the main driving force behind getting the film made



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